A Complete Guide to Web Application Penetration Testing: Techniques, Methods, and Tools

Roman Kolodiy
Delivery Manager, AWS Expert at TechMagic, big fan of SRE practices. Helps teams to improve system reliability, optimise testing efforts, speed up release cycles & build confidence in product quality.
A Complete Guide to Web Application Penetration Testing: Techniques, Methods, and Tools

Every tech company has ventured into creating online or digital platforms for their brand to better connect them to their consumers and provide a more effective and convenient transaction between their clients.

It is crucial for development teams to ensure that every web application they produce is thoroughly checked to avoid any software issues, bugs, faults or inconveniences in user experience, and, most importantly, security flaws within their system.

In this article, we provide a comprehensive guide on web application penetration testing to walk you through its process, along with several techniques, methods, and tools that you can use to help you ensure that your platform is bug-free, optimized, and safe for your customers to use.

What is Web Application Penetration Testing?

Before diving into the how-to of web penetration testing, it is best that we fully understand what web application penetration testing is, its components, and its importance in creating a safe and secure web application.

Web Application Penetration Testing is a process comprised of a series of methodologies and steps aimed at gathering information, spotting bugs and issues, detecting vulnerabilities, and researching for exploits that may succeed in penetrating and compromising sensitive client and company information.

In simpler terms, penetration testing is where ethical hackers simulate cyber attacks to check for anomalies or vulnerabilities in the systems code and security measures. Doing so prevents your application from unwanted cyber threats that may arise as they could potentially affect your brand and its reputation among your users.

What are Cyber Threats and What Should I Do About Them?

As we continue to develop more secure and safe protection measures across our platforms, fraudulent activities and cybercrimes also follow suit in upgrading and improving their methods to overcome such methods. This is why numerous platforms dedicate a significant amount of time and money to ensure that their platforms are covered with the highest level of security to prevent unwanted cyber-attacks from external forces.

Cybersecurity threats, more commonly known as cyber threats, are malicious acts that seek to damage, manipulate, steal, and disrupt digital and online data and life.

Cyber threats can come in many forms, such as:

  • Computer viruses
  • Data breaches
  • Denial of Service (DoS) attacks
  • Other attack vectors

Taking the time to understand the various types of cyberattacks enables you to prepare and simulate scenarios to overcome and eliminate such threats to your platform. The measures that must take place should depend on the severity of the cyber attack and the likelihood of the kind of cyber attack your company will encounter.

The Landscape of Cybercrimes Worldwide

Companies loosing money due to cybercrimes worldwide

In 2021, cybercrimes took a significant leap to 600% during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most were conducted through email and scams posing as representatives from the Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO). These sophisticated email hiding schemes embedded within them a clickable link disguised as a CDC or WHO URL, deceiving users to take action into accessing malicious links or opening attachments filled with a virus.  

As cybercrimes continue to grow, it is estimated that companies worldwide will lose around US$10.5 trillion annually by 2025. This is a big difference from the previously estimated loss of US$3 trillion in 2015.

According to Cybersecurity Ventures, cybercrime rates at 15% per year is said to have the most significant implication for the representation of the greatest transfer of economic wealth in history.

In efforts to counter the growth of cybercrimes, over 69% of companies are increasing their budget toward digital safety and security measures. The top areas of investment in cybersecurity include cyber insurance, digital forensics, incident response, and training.

Cybercrimes in Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs)

All kinds of businesses are affected by the onslaught of cybercrimes worldwide. However, cybercrimes within small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), in particular, are becoming more frequent in recent years. In a study conducted by Accenture, 43% of cybercrimes are targeted toward SMEs, with a low rate of only 14% prepared to defend their enterprise against such attacks.

Failure to defend and counter cyberattacks darted towards your business can be costly. Moreover, it can significantly disrupt business operations and damage crucial IT assets and infrastructure.

the state of cyber security 2021 2022

Ponemon Institute’s State of Cybersecurity Report shows that most SMEs worldwide experience the following cybercrimes:

  • Phishing/Social Engineering: 57%
  • Compromised/Stolen Devices: 33%
  • Credential Theft: 30%

When asked about how they handled their situation and the reason for the cyberattack successfully infiltrating their business, the SMEs concluded the following situations:

  • 45% of respondents claim to have insufficient security measures
  • 66% claim to have a high frequency of cyberattacks within the last 12 months
  • 69% claim to experience a more targeted cyber-attack

As the world ventures into online and digital spaces, it is essential to ensure that your enterprise is fully equipped to counter and defend your platforms with the necessary tools against cybercrime.

Moreover, obtaining a well-rounded understanding of cybercrimes and how they work allows you to proactively identify various security methods you can implement to counter various cyber-attacks along.

Why Penetration Testing is Important?

Diving into new technologies often exposes companies to new and more complicated cyber risks that could compromise your entire IT assets and infrastructure while potentially incurring millions of dollars worth of loss. To prevent this, you must have the right tools and methods that can effectively prevent, detect, respond, and recover from potential cyber-attacks.

This is where penetration testing comes in. As mentioned before, penetration testing is where you simulate cyber attacks to check for anomalies or vulnerabilities within your system’s code and security measures.

Importance of penetration testing - TechMagic

Here are several reasons why you should consider implementing penetration testing among your web applications and how it can protect your company from various cybercrimes.

#1: Risk Assessment

When creating digital or online platforms, bugs, technical issues, UX flaws, and security faults are bound to be intertwined within your system. Penetration testing, also known as pentest, is a developer's way of running a final rehearsal before a play or a mock test before a big exam. This enables developers and managers to actively look for vulnerabilities as issues within your platform, which could lead to minor and major problems should they be left untreated.

Pentesting allows you to assess the risks you encounter once you put your platform live and online, which can help prevent unwanted issues that your company could encounter between clients, contractors, investors, and even your competitors.

#2: Ensuring Compliance

Along with testing for anomalies within your system, pentesting enables you to ensure that your procedures, transactions, and functions are fully compliant with relevant laws and regulations in your industry.

Data privacy and collection laws are constantly changing. By testing your platform, you can identify which of your functions are up-to-date with current industry standards while ensuring that the security measures in place protect sensitive data and are compliant with data privacy laws applicable to your business.

#3: Company Reputation

Keeping a good company reputation within your industry and market is an essential aspect of running a business. Negative reviews and publicity linked to your business can significantly damage your company and its ability to bring and keep new and existing customers to your brand.

Although indirectly, penetration testing can help you avoid negative connections to your company by simply ensuring that your platform performs well. Spotting technical issues, security vulnerabilities, and user experience complexities can help you provide a more comprehensive and easy-to-use platform that can completely cater to their needs.

#4: Securing Sensitive Company and Client Data

One of the main objectives of conducting penetration testing is to ensure that your security methods are robust and complex enough to prevent and counter various cyber-attacks that may target your company. This protects vital and sensitive information about your company and your users, which can be sold on the dark web in exchange for cryptocurrencies or bargained against your competitors to use against you.

Web application penetration testing is a significant process when creating your online platform. This lets you ensure that your application is fully functional and bug-free, allowing your users to enjoy a convenient and satisfying experience with your brand.

How we built

a BPM app using JavaScript stack and Serverless on AWS

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Web Application Penetration Testing Steps: Techniques and Methods

Now that we have a complete understanding of web penetration testing and why you should consider implementing such methods, we can proceed with the steps, techniques, and methods used in web app pentesting.

Step #1: Information Gathering

The first and considered the most critical step in web app pentesting is information gathering, which allows you to map out a network involved with your web app. Information gathering, also known as the reconnaissance phase, provides you with a large amount of information to identify vulnerabilities and exploit them later on in the process.

There are two types of information gathering when conducting pentesting for your web app. You can choose from two kinds of information gathering, depending on the type of interaction you want to achieve:

  • Active Reconnaissance. This information-gathering method directly probes the target system and retrieves an output. Fingerprinting the network, using a Shodan network scanner, scanning web servers using nmap, and performing a DNS forward are several ways to conduct active reconnaissance.
  • Passive Reconnaissance. This process involves gathering information that is readily available on the internet and doing so without directly interacting with the target system. This usually involved searching your web app and its applicable child pages through search engines such as Google, Bing, and Safari.

This method will give you a baseline from which you will continue to study the target further and hopefully find vulnerabilities in the system to exploit later.

Step #2: Research and Exploitation

This part of web pentesting involves the research and exploitation of the information found during the reconnaissance phase of your web app pentesting. Infiltrating these exploits allows you to identify which parts of your code or security systems need fixing or adjusting to provide a more secure platform for your users.

When conducting this phase, it is recommended to use popular security tools to conduct your web app testing to automate common attacks, reveal hidden routes inside the application and give a penetration tester more time to prepare and conduct complex attacks that cannot be covered by automated tools. Luckily, most of these apps are open source, which makes it easier to acquire and sue for your target system.

Here is a list of tools that you can use:

For dynamic application security testing (DAST):

  • Burp Site
  • Arachni
  • Nikto
  • WPScan
  • Nessus

For static application security testing (SAST):

  • SonarQube
  • Semgrep
  • Snyk Code
  • Fortify Static Code Analyzer

For dependencies scanning:

  • Snyk.io
  • OWASP Dependency Check

For reconnaissance:

  • Maltego
  • SpiderFoot
  • Nmap
  • Wappalyzer
  • Sublist3r
  • theHarvester
  • TruffleHog

OS for Pentesting:

  • Kali Linux
  • Parrot Security

These are a few of the many security tools that you can take advantage of when pentesting your web application.

Step #3: Reporting and Recommendations

After going through a series of pentesting, it makes sense to collate your overall results to give an overview of what your company needs to undergo when making changes in your system.

What penetration testing report includes?

Generally, a Penetration Testing Report includes:

  • Executive Summary
  • Test Scope and Method
  • Vulnerability report
  • Remediation report

When creating a pentest report, you can opt to create a more business-oriented report to ensure that both your IT staff and higher management personnel can clearly understand the report and to what degree the risk that it exposes to the company.

Moreover, you can divide your report into two sets: a vulnerability report and a final report. This method allows you to provide a more focused report on the vulnerabilities involved within your system, while the final report provides an overview of the overall results, including other factors, during the pentest you have conducted.

Although penetration testing ensures that the target system is fully equipped to counter hackers and cybercrimes, several legal implications can place the testers and clients at risk. This can create legal issues between the tester and the client. To avoid this, it is best to provide a detailed and thorough agreement between both parties on the scope and limitations surrounding the said penetration testing. You can provide the following details to help construct a solid agreement between you and your tester:

  • ​​the tester has the written permission to penetrate the target system, with clearly defined scope, allowed attack methods, etc.; and
  • the company has the details of its pen tester and an assurance that he would not leak any confidential data.

This allows you to have a transparent and comprehensive agreement between both parties, ensuring your company’s safety and your testers’.

At TechMagic, we provide a thorough and complete web application penetration testing process to help you achieve a secure and safe platform for your company and your users. Through industry-grade applications and a full suite of pentesting tools, our team can effectively spot vulnerabilities and anomalies within your target system to help prevent such issues before placing your platform live for public use.

Final Thoughts

Penetration testing is essential for any company considering to venture into the digital space and create a web application for their users to interact with. By ensuring that your web apps undergo such processes, you can provide a safe and secure platform to your users while delivering the highest customer satisfaction and experience.

Finding the right tools and processes for penetration testing can be a challenging feat. With TechMagic, you won’t need to worry as we provide test automation services and holistic approach to penetration testing to help you achieve an easy web app pentesting experience.

How we built

an E-commerce analytics app using JS and Serverless on AWS

Learn more

FAQs About Web Application Penetration Testing

  1. What is penetration testing?

    Penetration testing is where ethical hackers simulate cyber attacks to check for anomalies or vulnerabilities in the system's code and security measures.

  2. What is the main difference between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing?

    Vulnerability scans refer to finding known vulnerabilities within your target system, while penetration solely refers to the intended actions to exploit weaknesses in the architecture of your IT network and infrastructure.

  3. What is the primary purpose of penetration testing?

    The primary purpose of conducting penetration tests is to measure the feasibility of systems, the potential of end-user compromise, and internal exploits and evaluate any related consequences such incidents may have on resources or operations.

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Ross Kurhanskyi
Head of partner engagement